Global efforts for the reduction of mercury

Mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and gold mining are leading to increasing environmental pollution around the world. Above all, the concentration of highly toxic methyl mercury in fish is increasing: Food law limits are more frequently exceeded in swordfish, tuna, eel and other large, older fish at the end of the food chain. In May 2015, a working group therefore proposed to the EU in a work paper that the limit value for particularly contaminated tuna should be doubled so that a higher proportion of this species of fish can be allowed to be sold again.

Methylmercury causes damage to the brain development of unborn children and infants and causes reduced intelligence. In adults, methylmercury also accumulates in the brain and causes nerve damage. The mutagenic effect of methylmercury has been proven. It is also suspected that methyl mercury has a carcinogenic effect.

After extensive studies and negotiations, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has succeeded in reaching a global agreement to reduce mercury emissions, similar to that for carbon dioxide. In memory of the serious damage to health caused by mercury emissions in the Japanese town of Minamata, the agreement is called the “Minamata Convention”. It was signed in 2013 by 128 states, including Germany. The agreement came into effect on 16 August 2017, after more than 50 states had ratified the document (mostly by a parliamentary decision). The agreement proposes measures to reduce mercury emissions worldwide, particularly in the two largest sources, gold mining and coal burning.

The technical options for mercury reduction are described in guidebooks prepared by technical experts from all five continents. These guidebooks on “best available techniques/best environmental practices” (BAT/BEP) address not only reduction options for coal-fired power plants, but also measures for cement plants, waste combustion plants and non-ferrous metal smelters (copper, lead and zinc production), which may also produce high mercury emissions.

Ökopol’s work within the framework of the Minamata Convention
(on behalf of the non-governmental organisation Zero Mercury Group):

  • Participation in the meetings of the international expert group
  • Participation in the preparation of and comments on the guidebooks
  • Research of background information for the guidebooks
  • Reporting on the meetings and the status of the work to the coordination office of the Zero Mercury Group (EEB, Brussels)


The signatory states to the Minamata Convention adopted the guidebooks under the keyword “BAT/BEP” at their 7th meeting in Jordan in March 2016. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has published them on its Minamata Convention website.